INTERVIEW | GWENDOLYNNE BURKIN OF GWENDOLYNNE
Name: Gwendolynne Burkin
Age: Eternally 35
Current Title / Company: Designer & Director at Gwendolynne
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB OUT OF UNIVERSITY & HOW DID YOU LAND THAT POSITION?
I was a designer, pattern maker & sample machinist for my VERY first job straight out of university at only just 20! It was for a string of Melbourne boutiques called “Garfunkle.” My boss used to say “enough of the dresses Gwendolynne, we need more crepe suits and shirts!” (It was 1991 & we did lots of designs with enormous decorative gold buttons, HUGE collared shirts and corded lace). Funnily enough the business eventually evolved into a popular place for eveningwear & formals after I left! I think I may have had a hand in that!
It was an amazing start I’m forever grateful my boss saw potential in me. Everyday he would let me go and just create! I got paid $250 a week (which wasn’t much even back then), so in retrospect I think I earned that freedom. I was put forth for the position thanks to one of my Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology lecturers. I confess I was a bit of a fashion geek at uni & worked really hard & got good grades as a student! But is it hard work when you love it? Later I learnt from my boss, I landed the position as I’m an all-rounder & was happy to do all elements of the process, he said most graduates wanted to just draw pretty pictures apparently being both creative and a technician is quite rare but for me I simply love all aspects of what I do.
While I was still at university and only just 18, I started my first solo business making hats, which I sold to places like the Fashion Design Council (FDC) & various independent boutiques throughout Melbourne. I was quite a little entrepreneur. I landed that opportunity as I had a university friend who sold her jewellery at FDC who saw some hats I’d made for my uni assignments & suggested I sell them. I look back on my young self and am proud of the achievements and that I was quite fearless and just DID things without being concerned about rejection. I guess I landed that opportunity, as I had no fear I just made a call and coordinated an appointment o show my hats. Sometimes it’s as simple as that. Later in my career those connections from the FDC created more incredible opportunities. You never know what things will lead to.
After Garfunkle, I focused on specializing as a pattern maker as I felt this was a real skill that required mastering at that point in my career. In my opinion design is essentially taste, and not necessarily always good. Taste that resonates to a demographic that want/need/desire what you do. It’s being connected and consistent about your own point of view. However, pattern cutting and crafting a garment is a skill and takes a lifetime to master. From there I worked at several places including Bettina Liano & Sportsgirl & as a freelancer for many labels pattern cutting or jeans, menswear, suits, coats, lingerie, gosh everything. I also worked as a pattern maker & designer in London where I worked on high street fashion for the likes of Miss Selfridges, Topshop, Warehouse & Oasis & for the elite designer brand Katharine Hamnett.
In London I gained real perspective on how wonderful it is to live in Melbourne & chose to come home. Upon my return to Australia, I launched my own ready to wear label in a very humble. This phase of technical specialising landed me a great reputation inside the industry and from that I was able to fund and build Gwendolynne the label you know now by freelancing as a pattern maker for other companies aside building my own business.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO CREATE YOUR BUSINESS?
Essentially, it was about having a pure creative voice. I also couldn’t identify a company I felt I could design for in Australia, where I could combine my aesthetic & that had my outlook for being ethical about manufacture. I love BEAUTIFUL decadent fabrics and have a passion for quality intricate design that leans toward the more expensive. When I designed for others I was limited to inexpensive cloths & mass manufacturing methods, focused on price not beauty! Working behind the scenes for others I had little influence on design.
At that time in my career & life I struggled to identify a brand that was doing eveningwear it in a cool contemporary way. “Eveningwear” was a bit of a dirty word in the late 90s with deconstruction & grunge (rip jeans & flannelette shirts think Oasis, Blur, Jane’s Addiction) being super cool. The term would often conjure up notions associated with hideous taffeta frocks from the 80s. I figured if only I could develop product with exquisite fabrics & superior cut it seemed logical if it was valuable it would have to be made for special occasions so I set out to create a day into night “groovy” eveningwear line. Oddly my coats, shirts and pants were some of the most coveted & popular items in my collections and they weren’t the ones made of the sumptuous cloths but were pattern cut with thought & consideration to flatter the female form! Also as someone who has always fluctuated in size I also wanted to be a designer brand for all sizes I offered from sizes 6 to 16 but I found the since I was only a wholesaler at that point boutique buyers never bought the collection for all sizes, which was disappointing.
I actually have broad tastes & enjoy fashion on so many levels & styles but it was logic that made me choose this path. I also chose a path of design that truly resonates emotion in me with a strong drive for creating pieces of pure beauty and elegance that are timeless & don’t clutter our world.
Over the span of my career I’ve witnessed local manufacturing taking an enormous hit across the industry with globalization and offshore manufacture so I decided to change my focus in 2004 upon the opening of my boutique from ready-to-wear fashion to create custom-made design with a focus on contemporary bridal. The earlier years of my label I sold to hip independent stores like Alice Euphemia, Fat, CapitalL, and Husk 45 stockists internationally at one point! It all got a bit too big and out of hand. I could see this generation of clients was growing up and needed wedding dresses and I figured “groovy girls get married too” not everyone wants to be amassed in stark white strapless tulle & weighed down by crystals. I certainly didn’t!
I also wanted to slow down from making fast fashion and contribute something of meaning & quality to the world, make pieces that people treasure. Because my signature style already had a romantic slant it was a natural progression to move to bridal & I had already had constant requests for wedding dresses whilst doing my ready to wear label so the transition was obvious. I like to think of myself as a clothing designer not fashion & I don’t consider myself as a bridal designer just a designer who makes beautiful dresses that can be worn for a wedding often considering how the dress can be worn more than once. If you invest in something this special made for you why not choose something that you could wear again to say your anniversary, a ball, the ballet? It is also more ethical to purchase something you will use more than once.
TAKE US THROUGH A DAY IN THE LIFE OF YOUR BUSINESS
My day starts with my fiancé Paul bringing me a coffee in bed at 7:30am. I then look at my social media and reply to anything relevant and do a post! Paul has a business too so we both sit in bed in our Jim-jams and do our e-mails! Very bad I know! I only live two blocks from work so I’m usually late! I don’t really look at e-mails whilst in the office as I find them a distraction & delegate most to my P.A.
Once at the studio, the days of the week are different as I build up to Saturday. A usual weekday involves pattern making or beading layout questions with my pattern assistant, coffee, fittings with my clients, coffee, pattern making or digital layouts for new designs, coffee, beading development, coffee, or trouble shooting ideas with my sewers in our atelier above our shop in Fitzroy, coffee. I usually work back until 7:30pm / 8pm, as I enjoy having time and space once the team have left to organise my thoughts and spread out on the pattern making table. When everyone is in it is a bit of a fight for table space!
I have a team of ten and we all do a little of everything so my days are always varied & often I am flipping between questions and problem solving the ever varying needs of our bespoke clientele! I rarely stay still I have surrendered to going with the flow but try and be as organised as I can!
Saturdays are relentless days with clients back to back doing fittings & measuring up orders. It is a finely tuned process to ensure we give our clients the service they need but allow them to enjoy the experience. It is hard to keep the coffee habit up but this is when I need it most. My good mate & onsite milliner Richard Nylon & my staff often bring me coffees!
Saturday nights I usually collapse with a glass of wine!
OBVIOUSLY, YOUR BUSINESS HAS GROWN! SO, LET'S TALK MONEY. TELL US ABOUT THE INTIMIDATING PROCESS OF FINDING FUNDING FOR YOUR BUSINESS.
ANY ADVICE FOR WOMEN WHO NEED TO FIND FUNDING FOR THEIR OWN STARTUP?
I’m very old school, I believe loaning money means you have to work extra hard to pay off the interest. It eats into your bottom-line. At every effort you should resist loaning money unless it’s for your home. If you get into business with an investor they want return and you have to answer to them on your decisions, you will make mistakes and the pressure of investment can be stifling. I built my business up form a New Business Grant of 3.5K, which gave me a tiny set up. I’m not up to date with Grants that are currently available but it is a sensible way to get started there are lots of resources online to find out more about this. You do have to do big reports & document everything so some things aren’t worthwhile with the time involved. Also keeping your overheads low is great advice for start-ups especially in the early stages. I had a very humble studio at $25 a week! It was a shared space with other artists and designers. Even today I share my building with milliner Richard Nylon & make up artist extraordinaire, Lizzie Sharp. Being in business can be lonely especially in the early days so there are other benefits having a support network around you.
As I mentioned earlier I also funded the start up phase of my business as a freelance pattern maker. My reputation as a patter maker made it little effort to find work it just kept coming in naturally! So for the first four years I did that almost 5 days a week and did my label on the side. In the early days, I would layby and gradually pay off fabric stock I wanted now I have credit at suppliers. Sometimes layby is a good way to gradually purchase things and if you don’t go crazy a credit card is always good to have on hand for those lean weeks. For big goal items it’s worth discussing payment plans with your suppliers. I find as long as you are open and stick to the plan many business are open to this method. It is a much more honest way to purchase things than default on your purchase and get yourself in a sticky situation. It is important to respect and maintain good relationships with your suppliers.
I would also say don’t spend money you don’t have. Build your business slowly and sustainably. There’s a trap that people fall into wanting to be too big too fast. Think sustainably be patient you can’t do it all at once well anyway. You will burn out & be chasing your tail things will go wrong & mistakes will ruin your reputation.
YOUR BUSINESS HAS DEVELOPED QUITE A FOLLOWING. CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT MARKETING YOUR BUSINESS? HOW DID YOU SPREAD THE WORD?
There is never that magic one big thing that you can point to. I think building a following is accumulative effective. But I do sincerely feel one of the strongest ways of spreading the word is to do good product and give good service and make your clients happen thus creating good old fashioned“Word of mouth”! So many of my clients come through referrals or walking past our shop in Fitzroy. We also take great care in curating our social media through Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest. I’ve found so many brides find us online through Instagram or through photographers, stylists, venues, hair & beauty, etc. sharing pictures.
We try and stay authentic and don’t just put clothes on someone who has lots of followers & perceived s a top blogger I prefer genuine collaborations where businesses or people connect deeper (like our recent collaboration with Sault Daylesford I’d prefer to dress an emerging performer or artist and be subtler in our approach than a Melbourne Housewife.
I am passionate about photography and story telling too so I enjoy creating my own content and spend quite a bit of time curating my Instagram feed and looking for collaborative opportunities that are unique and authentic. We love the Instagram community we’ve met and made so many business friends… Like you Love Find Co. X
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE KEY TO THE SUCCESS OF YOUR BUSINESS?
Hard work, staying authentic to my own sense of style & intuition & creating timeless quality pieces and not following trends. I don’t look at what others are doing my ideas come from things like my fascination with architecture and the decorative arts, oh and even microorganisms. I try to create heirloom gowns that my clients will treasure for many years, and pride myself on crafting pieces that are one of a kind and made to last I think my clientele value that and I do think I speak to a certain niche who my designs really resonate with. I genuinely listen to feedback too which inspires me to always look at ways to do things better. In fact I find it inspiring. Especially in the product front.
Someone once said to me I was successful (but then what is success?) because I was determined. In fashion we often gauge success by longevity as to still be around and independent is a real achievement in such a cutthroat industry.
But I do generally LOVE what I do so I think determination combined with passion really do help a lot. That way everyday you enjoy what you do and it is easy to master the skills. I’m a tad obsessed with making things always loving to work out how things are made or work. This also crosses over to things like my new affair with photography & working out Photoshop cooking & building a bench seat on my patio (it did fall apart though) Oh and I have also designed shoes and jewellery!
I simply have a very busy mind. When I stop I get a bit pathetic and lost so I think it’s inherent in my nature to be driven.
Best advice you ever received? Follow the child within and don’t believe everything you read!!
I wish I knew how to….. Remember all the designs I create in my dreams!
What is your coffee order? Out at a café it’s ALWAYS a Cappuccino (I love eating the froth!) & at work a strong coffee with one-third milk and two sugars ;)
TV show do you wish was still on the air? Twin Peaks
Next travel destination? Dark Mofo in Tasmania!
What advice would you give your 23 year old self?
Focus on the positive things and don’t get consumed by the negative… Some situations just aren’t worth your energy. Don’t believe everything you read.
Also, do yoga & stretch (I was told to do this and didn’t and wish I did now) and travel as much as you can. Follow your intuition & listen but don’t necessarily take everyone’s advice as gold (assess that advice but trust your own gut the most)
Finally wear sensible shoes!! Heels whilst sewing, cycling or backpacking through Europe is not a good idea! (Yes, I did it!)